Excerpt of The Good American by Ursula Maria Mandel
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This book is dedicated, among others, to the Good American, wherever he is now. One can't write such a book, however, without also dedicating it to all the women who, after some insanity--whenever and wherever--manage, somehow, and unflinchingly, to pick up the pieces and to go on.
Politics: A Fragment
On a summer day in 1948, Ruth Karstens, a young widow, and Pauli, her five-year-old niece, made their way gingerly down a densely forested mountain somewhere in eastern Germany. Both were hot, muddy, and exhausted. Pauli, holding on to Ruth's hand, lagged behind more and more, and so it looked as if Ruth were dragging the child down the mountain. A fresh breeze that had stayed behind after a thunderstorm parted the leaves of the trees now and then and gave Ruth a view over the vast, green pastures and barren fields toward where she was headed: a round village at the far horizon out of which stuck a church steeple. In the haze of that humid summer day, the hamlet looked more like a mirage than an actual village, but the image was enough to inspire Ruth to keep going.
In the same dense and silent forest, near the foot of the same mountain, a Russian soldier sat on the ground. He guarded a wide, muddy strip of land, a kind of road that hugged the foot of the mountain. His task was to make sure that no one would cross it. The strip was about fifty yards wide and had been thoroughly cleared of trees and underbrush and, particularly, of the network of brambles of the wild blackberries that used to grow there. The children of the village used to come in the summer to collect the berries in tins and baskets, and their mothers used to make the most delicious jams out of them. But the children did not come that summer. In fact, no one went near the mountain for fear they would be shot.
That day in 1948, the raped tract of land, now looking sad and desolate, didn't have the least scent of the brutal notoriety that would define it for the next fifty years when it would be called The Iron Curtain.' By dividing the world into East and West, it would have more power than any other piece of real estate ever. That afternoon, it looked innocent enough. Not far from the soldier, in the part that was called The West' and that was occupied by the American Armed Forces, a young farmer tilled a field with an ox. Ruth could see him as she came down the mountain. She had the distinct sense that, once she crossed what appeared to her a muddy creek and made it to that farmer, she would be home free.
The soldier, a gun in his lap, fished a cigarette out of a crumpled pack and struck a match. But before the match could make its way to the tip of the cigarette, a twig snapped brightly in the silence of the forest. The soldier froze, holding the lit match between his fingers. All his senses strained as the small sound of leaves crushed by soft steps came haltingly closer from somewhere above him. Without making the least sound, he blew out the match, lifted his gun, and rolled behind a tree. Ruth and the child walked directly and unsuspectingly toward him
From Chapter 6
"Let's have coffee over there," she said, getting up, pointing to the cozy couch corner with the colorful pillows. I helped her clear the table, taking things to the kitchen while she put everything away there.
"Go," she said. "Sit down. I'll bring the rest," and I settled, obediently, in the armchair and watched as she brought cups and saucers and sugar and cream and, finally, the coffee, which she poured, and a plate of cookies.
"Store-bought," she smirked before I could even ask whether she had actually gone through the trouble of baking cookies. Ceremoniously, she lit a fat yellow candle on the table and, finally, sat down the couch and curled her legs under.
"Don't you want to take off your shoes and put your feet up here on this ottoman?" she asked. "You'd be so much more comfortable."
Copyright Ursula Mandel 2001. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this excerpt please contact http://www.ursulamandel.com